Monday, October 12, 2015

LH Labs Geek Out V2 Review


When it comes to new versions of anything, it’s always a little "iffy" whether you should upgrade or not.  I myself was skeptical when it came to my current DAC.  My Geek Out 450 sounded so good – it was hard to believe LH Labs could make the Geek Out V2 sound THAT much better and justify the upgrade. 

Curiosity killed the cat and I decided to take the plunge and recently received the Geek Out V2 that I ordered (and paid for) and finally had the time to put it through its paces.

I’ve put together a nice article that compares the two units so if you are in the market for a new portable DAC or are thinking about upgrading your current Geek Out…read on!


Let’s take a look at the first differences you’ll notice when you get your package in the mail. 

The original Geek Out arrived in a box that was horizontally oriented while the V2 arrived in a box that was vertically oriented – I know, no big deal on the surface.

But when I saw the size of the new box, my Spidey Senses were already telling me something would be different…I couldn’t help thinking that something was missing.


Opening up the package – my suspicions were confirmed – and sure enough there was no USB extension cable.  In fact it lacked the nice little carrying bag that came with the 450 as well.  The package really only consisted of some foam and a thin piece of paper packaging around it.  The packaging still felt strong enough to protect the unit though.

So right off the bat, I was a little disappointed that the packaging took a hit and there was no extension cable, after all this is supposed to be a bigger and better product!

My only guess for the lack of cable would be that with the new design they would be worried about people laying the V2 flat on a surface which would block the ventilation holes which you will see in the next few pictures (There's even a warning about that in the owner's manual).  I use my DAC on an iMac and I find the extension cable to be very helpful for operating the unit - so I'll be stealing the cable from my 450 to use with the V2.

Pulling the Geek Out V2 out and comparing it to the Geek Out 450 – I noticed cosmetically it was a little wider and thinner. 

Also – the bottom of the unit, while cosmetically similar, had a change in functionality.

The GO 450 had two single-ended 3.5 mm output jacks that could be used by two different people at the same time OR when one person was using the unit they could use either jack depending on what type of Headphones they were using (bigger cans or IEMs).

The Geek Out V2 still has the two jacks – but they serve a different purpose.  Gone are the days of sharing with your buddy.  The V2 now has one 3.5mm TRRS balanced out (On the left with the red plug in it) and one 3.5mm single-ended output (On the right of the unit).  It’s laid out specifically in the directions

that you should not plug in single-ended and balanced headphones in at the same time OR plug single-ended headphones into the balanced jack and vise versa. 

In my opinion, LH Labs idiot-proofed this by plugging one of jacks with a red rubber plug.  Best practice seems to be to just move the stopper from output to output if you are using different phones - that way you’ll never risk plugging two sets of phones in at once or using singled-ended and balanced phones in the wrong jack.

On the backside of the unit you’ll find more ventilation for the unit, whereas the 450 had its legend for the display on the front.

Pulling the unit out of the foam, I will say that there is a distinct smell of plastic.  The smell wears off after a day or so, so it’s really not an issue.

Other notable differences: With The Geek OUT V2 LH Labs went from using the ESS SABRE9018AT2M digital-to-analog converter IC to now using the ESS SABRE9018AQ2M.


Cosmetically and functionally there are some wins and fails.  


It's Not A Maraca Anymore!

OK, so number one, if you had a first generation Geek Out you know that the buttons on the side that changed the digital modes rattled and gave the first impression that the unit was a cheap piece of trash (That is, until you heard it).  Well I am happy to report that that has all been fixed and the V2 has absolutely NO rattling.  The unit is made of an ultra-high temp resin - but it seems to be solid after first impressions.


LH Labs has done a WAY better job with the information they are displaying to you.  On the Geek Out 450, if you want to see what the gain level is, you have to flip the unit over and remember which jack you are plugged into.  On the V2, They’ve added a display at the top of the unit labeled with a G.  On my unit it displays a white light if you are using the unit at 100mW and a blue light if you are using it at 1000mW.  (If you have the infinity edition you will also have the option of using it at 450mW and the blue AND white LEDs will be lit)

Underneath the gain display is the display for the digital modes.  This LED will light up blue to denote that you are in TCM (Time Coherence Mode), Green to denote FRM (Frequency Response Mode), and if you have the infinity unit – red to denote SSM (Stable Streaming Mode)

Below the digital mode display is the display for the sample rates.  The V2 displays a white light for basically everything except for DSD, which displays a blue light.

I found this display scheme LIGHT YEARS ahead of my 450.  I always felt that the information distribution was clunky on my old unit.  The digital mode display would go away after a few seconds and flipping the unit over to read the legend was not the best design in the world.


Function-wise, LH Labs did a great job re-engineering how everything works.  Before you had to remember to press the concave button for FRM and the convex button for TCM.  After you remembered what concave and convex meant, two or Three LEDs would flash depending on which button you pressed and then would go away.

Now there is a dedicated button for each.  If you want to change the gain, just click the top button and the display changes white or blue.  Simple.  The same goes for the digital modes.  Just cycle through the bottom button and the LED changes color and stays there.  It may seem like a little thing, but it really makes operating this little DAC a much more pleasurable experience.


For me there was really one fail and that was cosmetically.  It is extremely hard to read the lettering on this thing.  I’m not hip to 3-D printing capabilities, but if they could have printed the markings for the display in different color it would have been a helluva lot easier to read.  The lettering is tiny and unless you have the right light and angle, it’s near impossible to read this thing from a distance.  And I’m not even talking about a huge distance – just from the bottom of my iMac where the extension hangs down - to me.  You can see from the pictures how tiny the lettering is – but until you get this thing in your hands you won’t realize what I’m talking about with the light and angling the unit to get the right reflection to see the lettering.  

The only saving grace here is the constant light that is emitted from the LEDs.  But even then with all of the sample rates pretty much displaying white, from my normal operating distance it’s tough to tell where the light is, especially between the 2X and 4X.  It would have been nice to have different colored LEDs there as well.

You can see from the pictures below – with an extreme close-up you can make out the lettering, but from a moderate distance – it’s next to impossible to see (again unless the light hits it just right.)

One last thing to mention about the unit itself – as far as heat goes, it was no warmer than my GO 450.  Even running it at the 1000mW setting – it was warm – but by no means HOT.  In fact, I might be crazy, but the geek Out 450 even seemed to be hotter to the touch. 

How Does It Sound?

All right, so we know how it looks and functions, but how does it SOUND???


First of all, here’s my disclaimer.  I don’t claim to be an “audiophile”.  What I am though, is a huge music enthusiast that has spent thousands of hours listening to music.  I know what I like, and I know the difference between good and poor systems.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure I would ever call myself an audiophile after visiting the many sites out there.  While some of the folks are very nice and helpful, others...well.........

I don’t have fancy equipment to test the frequency response of audio equipment and then plot out pretty graphs for everyone and truthfully, I see some of that as a bit of BS anyway.  Forgive me for straying a bit, but to give an example:  One of the photographers who I get a lot of my photography info from made a beautiful point about this one time.  Essentially someone was whining about a particular new lens and how it didn’t produce a perfect, sharp picture when shooting a test chart.  The photographer that I follow made the point of saying – who cares if it reproduces the test image perfectly…what he cared about is how does it work it the real world under real conditions - not photographing a complex print on a card that you will never use anyway in the real world.

The same can be said about audio equipment.  Testing devices may or may not match up to what something should look like on a graph, but the fact is, that everyone’s ears are different.  Not everyone can afford thousands upon thousands of dollars for the perfect system.  Also, just because someone may like something bright, or dull, or warm, or cold, or compressed or uncompressed, lots of bass or very little – doesn’t make it right, wrong, or good or bad.

The fact of the matter is, that people balancing on the line of enthusiast and audiophile deserve honest reviews from folks whose noses aren’t so far in the sky that they forgot what a pizza smelled like and don’t talk like Thurston Howell III about audio equipment – looking down on anyone that has a different opinion from theirs or may not know as much.  

So in summary Lovey, take this review with a grain of salt if you so choose, it won't hurt my feelings.

For anyone else who is looking to buy their first DAC or ready to make an upgrade – let’s continue on.

Here’s what I noticed about the sound differences between the two units.


I feel like the V2 is a bit brighter than the 450.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it was definitely noticeable.  It tended to make music a little more crisp, but not the point where it was too analytical.


The soundstage on the V2 was definitely wider than the Geek Out 450.  For me personally, it made for a more engaging experience while listening because the music seemed to breathe more.  There was a certain airiness to the music that enhanced the listening experience.  This made listening easy – and I never felt fatigued.


As mentioned before, the V2 felt brighter than the 450.  But even with that in mind, the music felt warmer.  Listening to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me was one of the most amazing experiences that I had with this unit.  I’m not the biggest Jones fan in the world, but listening to this DSD album through the V2 invoked such a feeling of warmth and satisfaction, I caught my self smiling while listening to it on several occasions.  It sucked you in in the best possible way.  Don’t get me wrong, the album sounds great on the Geek Out 450 – but when you switch over to the V2, something happens – and it’s something that analytical measurements can’t explain.  It was so inviting and I don't think I can put into words the feeling it invoked, but it's precisely why I love to listen to music in the way that I do.


The V2 added a level of detail that the 450 just couldn’t produce.  It’s no secret that I am a humungous analog synth fan.  I identify with the sounds of those machines more than any other instrument.  So when I started listening with the V2 – my ears perked listening to some of my favorite music with analog synths.  One of the standouts was Robo-Sapiens by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. under his alias “Malibu”.  On tracks like “Animal Lovin’ Ken”, “Sidekicks”, and “D.I.E.T.” I found myself drawn to the bass lines.  The synth waveforms were thick and almost felt 3D.  I plugged the 450 in to see if that level of detail was there, and it just wasn’t.  (Again – it still sounded good, but not like the V2).  The bass line in the “She’s A Study” (Malibu Remix) from the TV Eyes album was the same story.  With the V2, the synths just wrap themselves around your head and it’s just fantastic.

If you really want to hear some amazing detail from analog synthesizers, I highly recommend getting your hands on the first Moog Cookbook record and listen to the overture in “Buddy Holly”.  All I have to say is that when they are opening the filters…just wow.  It's like they're plugged straight into your head.

I also loved the detail that came out of Rick Wakeman’s “Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight”.  During the dueling Minimoog solos the acoustic guitar was really brought out, which I never really heard as clear as I do with the V2.  It was another one of those moments when you perk up and smile.

The DSD version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller sounded fantastic through this thing.  “Baby Be Mine” is a perfect example of the detail this little unit brings out.  First of all the synth bass is so thick and wet and lush – you feel like the synth is plugged directly into your phones.  But when the pads come in – you really get the detail from of synths.  And the creaking door at the beginning of “Thriller”…forget it.

For the non-synth heads out there, the detail is just as amazing when listening to jazz or pop.  Whether it’s Dave Brubeck’s Time Out or Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, you can really get every little nuance from the instruments.  Another pop example would be the Spilt Milk album from Jellyfish. “Hush” & “Russian Hill” are two great examples of how the V2 can be intimate when it needs to be.  Russian Hill is such a beautiful song in its own right, but when you listen to it through the V2, not only does the soundstage open up, but the detail that comes out sends you deeper into the dream the song creates.  

For people who have never had a nice DAC as I did a few years ago - this is precisely why it’s so magical to listen to beautiful recordings through something like a V2.  It just enhances the experience...period.


The V2 brings so much life to the music coming out of your computer, it's easy to get lost listening for hours.  It doesn't matter whether the songs are in DSD, 192, 96, or 44.1 (AAC/AIFF), etc. - because it makes everything sound better.

Honestly, after listening through this DAC – you won’t want to plug directly into your computer ever again.  It’s such a joy to listen to.

If you've been dragging your feet about getting one of these for the first time, here's some advice. Do it.  It’s worth every penny.  

If you were thinking about upgrading from your current Geek Out - I'll stick my neck out there and say it's worth it.  It sounds different from my Geek Out 450 - and I prefer it to the original.  I didn't think it would be noticeable, but it is.  In fact, from now on, the only way I'll be using my Geek Out 450 will be as a A.) a back-up and B.) a loaner for folks who have expressed interest in learning about the world of Hi-Res.

One last thought.  

Hearing the V2, I'm left with mixed emotions about the Geek Wave I have on order.  I've read that the technology should be pretty similar between the two devices.  So on one hand, I'm extremely excited about the idea of have a portable music player like the Pono, FiiO, Sony, etc. because I know how amazing the unit will sound.  

On the other hand, I only ordered the 64 and it won't have a balanced out :(.  I fully understand I ordered it that way, but after hearing this thing I hope that LH Labs adds that functionality to the Wave for those of us that ordered the 64.  It's MSRP is $200 more than the the V2 and $100 more than the Pono - which both have balanced out capability.  Again, I know I ordered it that way - but it will still be a disappointment having a cheaper (Price) USB DAC with more output options than a portable player.

LH Labs if you're would be wicked if the 64 came with a balanced out!

Thanks for Reading.

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